As discussed in Part I and Part II of this series, the nonpharmaceutical interventions (“NPI”) deployed in America to fight the pandemic are doing some great good and causing some great harm. The harms include: (1) deaths and a weakening of the immune systems of sheltered people[i] (weakened immune systems open the lid of a pandora’s box of illnesses beyond COVID-19), (2) people have been so frightened by the one-sided messaging about COVID-19 that they choose not to seek needed medical attention, (3) “elective” surgeries to relieve pain and suffering are not being performed, and (4) loss of income, life savings, reserve values of pension plans, and falling home values render buying needed medicines too big a financial risk to take.
Sadly, the record of coronavirus vaccines (which have been a problem for about 20 years now), however, has not been very successful. Since Part II was published, I have learned: (1) “There are six human coronaviruses (HCoV) to date; HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43, HCoV-NL63, HCoV-HKU1, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-CoV, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV” and “Currently, no effective licensed treatment exist against coronavirus infection;” and (2) finding a cure for COVID-19 is unlikely (some virologists say it may be impossible[ii]). And, of course, vaccines kill some people.[iii]
A growing chorus of respected epidemiologists says that other than NPIs designed to protect the people in categories known to be especially vulnerable to serious illness or death from the virus (old, infirm, and other specific preconditions), NPIs are doing more harm than good.[iv] Findings like “Experts surprised to find no evidence of COVID-19 spike from Wisconsin’s in-person voting” are mounting. (Can you imagine how dispirited those researchers were?) Protests against NPI, and their irrational/arbitrary rules— abortions are essential but most other “elective” surgeries or procedures, e.g., colonoscopies, are nonessential, and authoritarian enforcement are growing.[v]
In addition to the above, the negatives of: (1) suicides go up one percent for every one percent increase in unemployment,[vi] (2) more deficit spending and creating money/inflation,[vii] (3) normalization of totalitarian style edicts,[viii] (4) mass surveillance,[ix] and (5) people choosing government handouts over jobs[x] have come to the fore. Maintaining currently deployed NPI risks sending the country into an economic death spiral, which, if it happens, will multiply our miseries and deaths.
In short, much misery and death will ensue if the country continues aggressive NPIs, discontinues NPI, or anything in between. If the county’s economy remains too throttled too long, more misery and death will be caused by the throttling than would be caused by COVID-19. Consequently, the current NPI regime must be eased at some point and waiting for a vaccine, which may never come, is untenable in light of the uncertainty and waiting times for a vaccine and the mounting negative consequences of NPI.
The foregoing assumes the economy has not already gone beyond the tipping point. Though it may have, there are good reasons to doubt NPI has already sent the economy into a death spiral. The Spanish flu and its NPIs caused more economic destruction than the COVID-19 virus and its NPIs have caused so far. In terms of life-years lost,[xi] there is and will be little comparison between the Spanish flu and COVID-19. Nevertheless, within two years after the Spanish flu pandemic, the US economy came to be fairly described as “The Roaring Twenties.” During that period, workers’ wages rose significantly and the economy boomed.[xii]v
The above analogy will not apply if the government too actively tries to fix the economy once the NPIs are removed. In 1921 President Coolidge sprang into action to prevent the federal government from much involvement in fixing the economy, and entrepreneurs and workers took it from there.[xiii]
When does “throttled too long” happen? No one does or can know. All of the practically infinite variables affecting that outcome cannot be identified and the identifiable ones that cannot be sufficiently quantified to confidently predict either the time or the conditions that would cause a death spiral. We do know, however, that every minute the economy remains throttled nudges the economy closer to the cliff, and every minute people remain shielded from pathogens and beneficial bacteria and viruses weaken immune systems—thereby rendering Americans more vulnerable to other viruses and bacteria, including possible mutations of COVID-19. As I said, waiting for a vaccine is untenable.
On the other hand, the reopening of businesses will do little good if too few erstwhile customers are willing to engage in enough commerce to keep businesses afloat. Reopened businesses can survive only if enough people believe either that patronizing business is “safe enough” or that they should patronize businesses despite the safety risks.
We’ll sort out both of the above points in upcoming posts.
UPDATE: An important negative consequence of NPI not mentioned in the original post is the fact that people sheltering are in stress. The Mayo Clinic puts it this way: “Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mind and body.” (Click on the text for details.) Sources of stress are many without a pandemic. To add to those stressors things like sheltering fearing that, at any moment, a family member or one’s seld could contract a horrible, if not deadly, disease is a huge stressor. To add even more to that stress, one sitting at home with little to do leaves lots of time to stress oneself out more by focussing on the problem.
 The “death spiral” is predicated on the expectation that when business failures cause massive job losses, collapses of 401k, other retirement savings, and pension fund assets, and out-of-work people, including retirees, have insufficient assets with which to buy their necessities, (and ripple effects of all of that), the government will create more money/inflate the currency/reduce confidence in the US dollar, as it tries to sustain a population that does not produce as much as it consumes. Eventually, buyers for US bonds will dry up because of the declining prospects of US bonds being the safest investment in the world. With bond sales being no longer available, the government will have not option but to create more money to fund its unfunded liabilities and desires to spend even more. The consequences of that spiral are hyper-inflation, panic, and the collapse of the economy. Those events will cause civil disruption, further taxing the government and serial decimations of the quality of life, which will span more civil disruption.
[i] “LIVE Local doctor from Accelerated Urgent Care gives his take on COVID 19 in Kern County” and “Perspectives on the Pandemic | Dr John Ioannidis of Stanford University | Episode 1” @25:00
[ii] “We Might Never Get a Good Coronavirus Vaccine:” “COVID-19 could be a virus that proves resistant to vaccination. ‘This may be one,’ [Rachel Roper, a professor of immunology at East Carolina University who took part in efforts to develop a SARS vaccine] says. ‘If we have one, this is going to be it, I think.’”
[iii] “Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show?” While this article’s title indicates the it will tell the reader how many people are killed by vaccines, the article is mostly about the data that supports the notion that vaccines are a good idea. As true as that may be, the fact that the article doesn’t not say that “the evidence shows” that no people are killed by vaccines (a fact that would be in the opening line of the article if it were true, is not included in the article.
[iv] “WHO hails Sweden as a ‘model’ for fighting coronavirus without a lockdown” (pulling the rug from under Swedish model bashers), “Why lockdowns are the wrong policy – Swedish expert Prof. Johan Giesecke,” “Perspectives on the Pandemic | Dr. John Ioannidis Update: 4.17.20 | Episode 4,” “Perspectives on the Pandemic | Dr. David L. Katz | Episode 3,” and “Perspectives on the Pandemic | Professor Knut Wittkowski Update Interview | Episode 5.”
[v] “We must combat Covid-19 but creeping authoritarianism could do more harm than good.”
[vi] “Psychology Today,” “Unemployment is a well-established risk factor for suicide. In fact, 1 in 3 people who die by suicide are unemployed at the time of their deaths. For every one-point increase in the unemployment rate, the suicide rate tends to increase .78 points. One of the silent drivers of our current suicide crisis is the high percentage of working-age men not participating in the labor force.” “Dr. Ioannidis on Results of Coronacirus Studies.” @6:35
[vii] “The US Will Never Get Back to Pre-Coronavirus Spending Levels, History Suggests. And That Means Trouble.”
[viii] “We must combat Covid-19 but creeping authoritarianism could do more harm than good.”
[ix] “Mass Surveillance Is Spreading along with COVID-19”
[x] “She got a forgivable loan. Her employees hate her for it.”
[xi] “How Economists Calculate The Costs And Benefits Of COVID-19 Lockdowns” and “Solving the Mystery Flu That Killed 50 Million People,” “Spanish Flu of 1918 that “disproportionately took the lives of men and women in their 20s and 30s, while often sparing the very old and the very young.”
[xii] “Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.” “Using state-level personal income estimates for 1919-1921 and 1930, the authors do find a positive and statistically significant relationship between statewide influenza mortality rates and subsequent state per capita income growth… Some academic research suggests that the 1918 influenza pandemic caused a shortage of labor that resulted in higher wages (at least temporarily) for workers…”
[xiii] “The Depression You’ve Never Heard Of: 1920-1921.”